Bendita Cynthia Malakia (she/her) is a rising name in the Diversity, Equity & Inclusion (DEI) advocacy space, with emphasis on representation for LGBTQIA+ and racial minorities in the legal field. As the Global Head of Diversity & Inclusion for leading international law firm Hogan Lovells, much of her work challenges existing, organization-specific definitions that aim to reflect the entire breadth of global diversities outside their walls. Ms. Malakia shared her expertise of how Diversity and Inclusion (D&I) work inside a U.S. organization really looks, how companies can adopt practices that transform their workforce, and which frameworks can truly set the tone for an entire industry.
NA: How long have you been working on D&I issues and what calls you to this work?
BM: As a Black bisexual woman, there are rarely spaces that I occupy from a professional standpoint where there are triply-intersectional folks like me. So I have now, and have always, felt my difference. Growing up in a non-diverse, suburban town in Central New York meant that I have always been conscious of my difference and the systems that impact my ability to live and experience joy. Even in college I wrote my thesis about the treatment of Black women under the Equal Protection Clause. This work has always been in my spirit regardless of what organization or roles I have occupied.
NA: What is DEI or D&I, from a legal perspective?
BM: I like to think of D&I as the shorthand for diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging. Effectively, D&I and DEI are used interchangeably, but they can mean lots of different things to lots of different people. These groups of practices aren’t executed the same way in any two organizations. Each entails approaches toward achieving different aims related to a diverse worker’s experience. For me, centering the diverse worker is really important. Others may center what is good for the organization. However, these two constituencies can often be aligned. In legal organizations, large corporations, and large academic institutions, the focus is on the worker or student lifecycle – how do we recruit, develop, retain, and advance underrepresented people in their organizations? Figuring this out requires a look at both individual and institutional challenges, which require policies, programs, processes and people to change.
The legal support system for DEI can vary by state for LGBTQ+ folks, and with the US federal government executive mandates labelling D&I training as un-American, the legal framework isn’t always the most helpful in implementing forward-leaning transformations.
NA: These days, companies are calling on their own employee base to provide policy solutions and to shift office cultures toward a more inclusive atmosphere. Is this the right approach?
BM: Unless someone has diversity as part of their job description or role, I don’t think it is appropriate to use diverse people in this way. There are professionals that do this work, who have signed up to undertake the emotional and other actual labor required to advance D&I. Asking underrepresented employees to do it is a form of additional uncompensated labor. Expecting them to do it undermines D&I as an academic and professional discipline that requires a specific skill set and training.
Organizations invest in what they measure. They must be responsible for drawing the line between obtaining input and placing an additional burden on its diverse employees, simply because of the organization’s own ignorance. If an entity wants to understand product development for the elderly, it doesn’t tend to go to all the old people it employs and ask them what they should do. They invest in focus groups and studies, etc. D&I for historically underrepresented people should be no different.
NA: What are the biggest D&I transgressions that you see companies making?
BM: Asking their own employees to educate leaders and colleagues is one. Another is transitioning someone who happens to be diverse from their operational role to a role responsible for diverse community building, without thinking about the leadership skills needed to help them succeed. In both cases, organizations should hire an external consultant or an in-house DEI professional, whose role is exclusively in this area.
Organizations also believe they are doing the right thing because they donate lots of money to underrepresented people who are out of their line of sight. Doing so allows them to feel good without admitting any culpability; focusing internally on how the processes, policies, and programs actually disproportionately benefit some over others is the more authentic, engaged action.
NA: Do all identities and affinity groups get uplifted by D&I work or are some benefiting more than others?
BM: White cis-gender straight women historically benefit most historically from D&I efforts. This is often because those in power (white cis straight men) can identify with helping the women in their lives. If they are going to do something, it tends to be most natural for them to do that. Within communities, even marginalized ones, there are hierarchies that develop which can sometimes mirror broader society. Among women, white women’s issues tend to be put at the forefront, even for efforts that have been historically started and driven by women of color. This co-opting is unfortunate.
Over the last decade, we have seen increasing acceptability of LGBT+ folks in society and in our workplaces. Because the stereotypical profile of LGBT+ people is the white, cisgender gay man, there is some elevation of that identity. This population is significantly feeling the benefits of corporatization supporting that identity, sometimes because of covering and other times because of access to whiteness. We need to make sure the broader queer population is properly supported and that we interrogate how white cisgender gay men are starting to become the next default primary beneficiaries of civil rights and D&I efforts.
NA: How is D&I work today different from 1990s-era affirmative action policies?
BM: Affirmative action tends to be about demographics and remediation for past wrongs. DEI work today ought to be more about a holistic approach to ensure that every person has an equitable shot at thriving in the organization of their choice regardless of their background or how they identify. This means putting specific goals in place for retention or advancement related to minority, LGBTQ+, and differently-abled communities. This means ensuring access to resources – like coaching, mentoring, sponsorship, and developmental work. It means testing decision-making and outcomes for bias regularly. It means ensuring that every member of the organization has training on DEI principles and understands the expected behaviors in the organization.
Recently, Hogan Lovells externally published its 2025 goals, related to minority and LGBT+ partners. We wanted to signal to our staff and the market that we take diversity and inclusion goals seriously, with a focus on these key underrepresented groups.
Industry leaders need to rely on moral values and the business case. These are the two primary drivers that may be able to get us to the right place. And it’s the first time in our history that the business case and the moral cases for diversity have converged, so it is a powerful time to push this work forward. Hopefully this period persists.
NA: Is attention to these issues a passing fad or here to stay?
BM: In the US, we have a specific set of histories that drive our focus on diversity and inclusion. In fact, our focus on it as an industry in professional environments predates most, if not all, other countries. In the US, we are permitted to measure and track information on the basis of diversity demographics more broadly than in other countries, where often gender ( typically in a binary way) is only allowed to be collected and disseminated to advance D&I initiatives. As a result of those legal restrictions in the employment law and privacy law contexts, the ability to make strategic interventions that allow for the advancement of equity for those that are most marginalized (e.g., racial/ethnic minorities, LGBT+ identifying people, disabled folks, those of lower socioeconomic status) is limited. You can have an aggregate focus where you look broadly at recruiting, and you can work on your culture through building inclusive leadership competencies, but equity – ensuring that the people that need it get what they need – is extremely challenging to do. And equity is really where the hard choices land that really change outcomes.
It is hard to say whether the increased attention to anti-racism is a fad. Our recent racial reckoning has led to more progress in the last 6 months than I’ve seen in the last 5 years. However, we have had these moments before, and they faded away. Most people agree that D&I is important, at least nominally. And we can agree, especially in the context of an American ethos, that no one should be disadvantaged episodically or systematically. The challenge comes in transitioning from a fairness, or an All Lives Matter, perspective to an equity-based Black/Queer/OtherLives Matter one. When people need to make hard decisions in a world of scarcity to shift resources toward those that have been historically underrepresented, there is reticence to act because it doesn’t feel fair. That’s hard for the advantaged to swallow, particularly when their privilege is so pervasive that they do not recognize that it exists.
Nafeesah is a freelance writer and independent researcher with a particular interest in literature, gender identity, and diaspora studies within the global South. She graduated cum laude from Barnard College in 2006, earned a Masters of International Affairs from Columbia University in 2009, and completed the postgraduate program in Folklore & Cultural Studies at Indira Gandhi National Open University (IGNOU) in India in 2013. Nafeesah received her Ph.D. in Forced Migration from the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits) in 2019.